What caused the stock plunge? What does it mean for the future? Nobody knows, and not much.
Attempts to explain daily stock movements are usually foolish: A real-time survey of the 1987 stock crash found no evidence for any of the rationalizations economists and journalists offered after the fact, finding instead that people were selling because, you guessed it, prices were falling. And the stock market is a terrible guide to the economic future: Paul Samuelson once quipped that the market had predicted nine of the last five recessions, and nothing has changed on that front.
Still, investors are clearly jittery - with good reason. U.S. economic news has been good though not great lately, but the world as a whole still seems remarkably accident-prone. For seven years and counting we’ve lived in a global economy that lurches from crisis to crisis: Every time one part of the world finally seems to get back on its feet, another part stumbles. And America can’t insulate itself completely from these global woes.
But why does the world economy keep stumbling?
On the surface, we seem to have had a remarkable run of bad luck. First there was the housing bust, and the banking crisis it triggered. Then, just as the worst seemed to be over, Europe went into debt crisis and double-dip recession. Europe eventually achieved a precarious stability and began growing again - but now we’re seeing big problems in China and other emerging markets, which were previously pillars of strength.
But these aren’t just a series of unrelated accidents. Instead, what we’re seeing is what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.
More than a decade ago, Ben Bernanke famously argued that a ballooning U.S. trade deficit was the result not of domestic factors but of a “global saving glut”: a huge excess of savings over investment in China and other developing nations, driven in part by policy reactions to the Asian crisis of the 1990s, which was flowing to the United States in search of returns.
He worried a bit about the fact that the inflow of capital was being channeled, not into business investment, but into housing; obviously he should have worried much more. (Some of us did.) But his suggestion that the U.S. housing boom was in part caused by weakness in foreign economies still looks valid.
Of course, the boom became a bubble, which inflicted immense damage when it burst. Furthermore, that wasn’t the end of the story. There was also a flood of capital from Germany and other northern European countries to Spain, Portugal, and Greece. This too turned out to be a bubble, and the bursting of that bubble in 2009-2010 precipitated the euro crisis.
And still the story wasn’t over. With America and Europe no longer attractive destinations, the global glut went looking for new bubbles to inflate. It found them in emerging markets, sending currencies like Brazil’s real to unsustainable heights. It couldn’t last, and now we’re in the middle of an emerging-market crisis that reminds some observers of Asia in the 1990s - remember, where it all started.
So where does the moving finger of glut go now? Why, back to America, where a fresh inflow of foreign funds has driven the dollar way up, threatening to make our industry uncompetitive again.
What’s causing this global glut? Probably a mix of factors. Population growth is slowing worldwide, and for all the hype about the latest technology, it doesn’t seem to be creating either surging productivity or a lot of demand for business investment. The ideology of austerity, which has led to unprecedented weakness in government spending, has added to the problem. And low inflation around the world, which means low interest rates even when economies are booming, has reduced the room to cut rates when economies slump.
Whatever the precise mix of causes, what’s important now is that policymakers take seriously the possibility, I’d say probability, that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.
My sense is that there’s a deep-seated unwillingness, even among sophisticated officials, to accept this reality. Partly this is about special interests: Wall Street doesn’t want to hear that an unstable world requires strong financial regulation, and politicians who want to kill the welfare state don’t want to hear that government spending and debt aren’t problems in the current environment.
But there’s also, I believe, a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats alike want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices - choices like cutting popular programs and raising interest rates. They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse. But we are, and they will.